Six years ago when 20th Century Fox was looking for a director for Life of Pi it asked French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud. He refused, opting instead to make Wolf Totem in China.
Pi went on to win four Academy Awards. Now Totem’s backers, state-owned China Film Group (CFG), will be hoping its $40 million production, which arrived at cinemas last week, wins at least one award too.
Indeed, throughout the decade that it took to get this controversial film made, the chances of winning foreign acclaim may have been the key factor preventing its detractors from canning it.
Wolf Totem started out as a novel in 2004. Written by Lü Jiamin, a former student protester who penned the book under the pseudonym Jiang Rong, it is a semi-autobiographical account of his time on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution (when young students were sent to work and live in rural villages).
The protagonist is Chen Zhen, a student from Beijing, and the book is essentially a long treatise about the flaws of the Han Chinese and their systems of Confucian and Communist beliefs. The heroes of the tale are the nomads who Chen is billeted with, as well as the wolves that the nomads both fear and venerate. Indeed, Chen falls in love with the Mongolian ability to live in harmony with nature. “The wolf totem [a reference to the Mongolians’ belief in the wolf’s spiritual significance] has a much longer history than Han Confucianism, with greater natural continuity and vitality,” Chen says. “There’d be hope for China if the national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling,” he adds.
The novel sold over 20 million copies in China and was rumoured to have been a popular gift amongmembers of the military. But because the book touches on some of China’s most sensitive topics, such as relations with the ethnic minorities, it is easy to see why many didn’t expect it to survive as a big-budget movie. “They broke a lot of rules to get it made. Now they are hoping it pays off,” said an industry insider shortly before the film’s release.
One of the risks was drafting in Annaud as director, because he was persona non grata in China after a movie he made about Tibet in 1997 (it was banned in local cinemas). Officials are said to have visited Annaud in Paris in 2007 telling him the “past is the past”, while China Film Group wanted him because of his experience in making movies with animals. “It was important to us to find someone who could make this movie well and tame the wolves,” admitted La Peikang, CFG’s chairman. “With regard to films that he made in the past, I don’t think this is very important.”
Nonetheless, CFG is said to have been shocked when Annaud said he would only shoot the movie with genuine Mongolian wolves – not dogs or computer-generated imagery. That meant a delay of three years for raising and training the 19 animals which would appear in the film. Annaud also wanted to shoot on location as much as possible, meaning the crew spent 18 months in the grasslands, sometimes exposed to extreme weather.
Both the movie and the book depict the encroachment of the Han Chinese onto the Mongol plains, leading to the killing off of the wolves and the gradual destruction of the local environment.
Not all are fans. Some of the initial criticism of the film has focused on its fascination with the wolf pack, including comments from novelist Guo Xuebo, a member of the China Writers Association, who complained on his microblog that wolves are not such an emblematic animal for Mongolians.
“Wolves have never been the totem of Mongolians, and there’s no record of any wolf totem in Mongolian literature or history,” Guo wrote. “The wolf is the natural enemy in the lives of Mongolians, and wolves have no team spirit and often fight each other.”
Warming to his theme, Guo described the animals as “greedy, selfish, cold and cruel” and said that “advocating the spirit of wolves is [a kind of] fascist thought that goes against humanity”.
In its review of the film Variety was relatively unenthused too: “Despite its magnificent vistas and some pulse-pounding action in stunning 3D, Wolf Totem boils down to a familiar environmentalist allegory that doesn’t move or provoke too deeply.”
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